From Scott Tobias’s 9.11.17 Variety review: “In the wake of the 2008 recession, some investors looking to recoup their losses from the subprime mortgage crisis traded one fraud for another, turning the inflated value of China’s economic boom into another bubble destined to be popped. Jed Rothstein’s wildly entertaining The China Hustle blows the lid off another multibillion-dollar heist built on complex financial instruments and a whole lot of smoke and mirrors.
“Though it resembles the docu-journalism of Alex Gibney films like Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Rothstein’s irreverent, can-you-believe-this sense of humor makes the anti-capitalist message go down even easier.
“Far from a postmortem, the film uncovers a scandal that’s still ongoing, with parties on one side bullish about promoting Chinese stocks and parties on the other looking for empty stocks to short. And as with the widespread malpractice that torpedoed the housing market in 2008, there are no rules or incentives for investment banks and brokers to stop perpetuating shady deals, so long as the commissions keep rolling in.
“’There are no good guys in this story, including me,’ says Dan David, the charismatic whistle-blower who serves as the film’s prevailing voice and de facto tour guide.
“Working at a tiny investment firm in small-town Pennsylvania, David and his brother took a massive hit in the 2008 collapse, but resolved to stay in business and figure out creative ways to earn back their clients’ investment dollars. What they discovered was something called a ‘reverse merger’: Because Chinese companies couldn’t be traded directly in U.S. stock exchanges, hundreds of them were ‘merging’ with American shell companies that still had a presence on the New York Stock Exchange or other trading floors. In theory, American investors could then seize on the opportunity to profit from the gains of an ascendant economy.
“In practice, however, many of these companies were reporting assets and revenues that were way out of line with their actual value — and without any auditing firms on the level, there’s no one to call them on it. Through creative acts of surveillance, like offering free tea samples to employees at a Chinese factory to determine how many workers it actually had, David and others were able to sniff out the fraud and make money by shorting the stocks once an investigation suggested a much different story than the goosed-up numbers were telling.”